Sunday, January 18, 2015

Home sweet Como Park

Up at 4 a.m.--well, 4 a.m. Minnesota time, which I never really got off of--and walking up my front steps by 11 a.m. In the van to the airport the two women I rode with were talking about books and writing and revising, and suddenly the van driver blurted out, "Are you guys writers?"

In tones of awe. Tones that we never, ever hear. It was funny, and fun.

Though I had most of the day at home, I did not have it in me to do any serious work today. I started reading Joshua Ferris' novel, because I have to interview him in April, but I didn't do anything at all to my thesis, other than to reformat it the way that Rebecca asked me to. (Indented paragraphs and no extra space between paragraphs. Apparently my manuscript looked a lot like this blog post.)

I napped with Rosie. I walked Rosie. I walked Riley. I unpacked. I played online Scrabble with my brothers and my sister.

While I was in North Carolina, Doug kept me up to date on the animals in the park--foxes on the frozen lake, hooting and flying owls, a raccoon descending from a tree right in front of Rosie (and you can imagine how much Rosie liked that).

The park tonight
We took a long walk with the dogs this evening. No wildlife. No hooting. I didn't care. I'll see the owls again. For now, it was just nice to have the pack back together.

Saturday, January 17, 2015

Saturday night, brain dead, all packed, hoping I don't sleep through my alarm

The Diana Fountain (which has its own Facebook page)
was all gussied up today for a tour of visiting high school students.

I'm in my hotel room, my last night in Charlotte, and the children in the room next door are shrieking, slamming doors, crying, laughing.... It is cruel of me to dislike the sound of laughing children but at this moment, I do, unashamedly. I'm tired. It's been a long week. I'm ready to go home.

We will not tell the high school students how, from a certain angle,
Diana's quiver of arrows becomes obscene.
It was, however, a great week. Friday's seminar on how to teach poetry was spectacular; I walked into the seminar convinced that there was no way on Earth I could ever possibly even think about teaching poetry, and walked out two hours later ready to call the Loft Literary Center and see if they needed me and my new-found skills. Cathy Smith-Bowers, former Poet Laureate of North Carolina, is a very good teacher.

Yesterday was back-to-back seminars, always a tough day--Cathy followed Pinckney Benedict, who talked about how to teach fiction writing. In Pinckney's seminar I saw a bald man wearing glasses and a grass-green shirt, sitting behind two speakers that were blaring Metallica. At 9 a.m. At the end of a long week. I have to admit, I sort of hated him for the first fifteen minutes of class. But he grew on me, and by the end of the seminar I loved him. (I still am no fan of Metallica. But now I know why he was playing it.)

After workshop, a bunch of us went to hear the graduating students do their thesis reading, and then we high-tailed it to the Mellow Mushroom for dinner. And then back to campus for faculty readings: Elissa Schappell, and Claudia Rankine. Elissa read a long essay called "How the Light Gets In," about her history of seizures and about the seductive nature of them.

Poet Claudia Rankine listens as Elissa Schappell reads.
And then Clauda Rankine read from "Citizen," her book of poetry about race in America that was a finalist for a National Book Award in 2014. She has a great calm, centered demeanor, and she read these powerful poems so quietly.

Claudia Rankine.
This morning I saw five bluebirds, and two more in the evening on my last walk. It was a gorgeous day, sunny, clear skies, 55 degrees. I walked outside every opportunity I had.

Bluebirds this evening.

Our last seminar was on the teaching of writing for stage and screen, and while the seminar was more on the writing than the teaching, it was interesting if only (said the instructor, Hal Ackerman) to make watching movies more fun. He sketched out the structure of most screenplays and talked about the importance of conflict in every single scene.

And then one last workshop, and we were done.

But of course we're not done; the semester begins the minute I get back. My first manuscript is due on Feb. 1.

I'm tired. I want to work on my thesis but I think I need to wait a few days. My flight leaves at 8:30 a.m.; I will be home by 11 a.m.; I am taking Monday off work to be with the dogs and be quiet. The kids in the room next door seem to have quieted down. (Oh, wait, I spoke too soon. "Mom! I'm locked out!") My hotel charges have been straightened out. I am packed.

One more semester. Two more residencies. Boom.

Friday, January 16, 2015

Friday morning, filled with angst

The cause of my angst
This is my hotel. It is within walking distance of an enormous shopping mall, a grocery store, a cute little twinkly-lights old-timey town centre with a fountain and outdoor tables. Nothing special.

This morning is payday back in Minnesota, so I checked online to make sure I had been paid, as I always do on payday, and I have been; so far, so good. And then I checked my Visa bill, and found that I have more than $1,000 in pending charges from this hotel.

I paid for my stay at this hotel in advance, as part of my rather enormous tuition payment. The $1,000 for the hotel (group rate) made the payment even bigger.  And now on my Visa bill is more than $1,000 worth of pending charges, not at the group rate, for my stay here.

Just an ordinary room! I refuse to pay double to stay here.
Nobody is in the accounting office here until 9 a.m., the time of my first class. They do not work on Saturdays or Sundays, the day I leave.

I know we'll get this sorted out, but still.

I get overly anxious about this sort of thing. I don't like having it as a distraction when I have other things to be thinking about. I have left messages (I try for a stern tone but end up sounding all whiney and quavery) with the appropriate people and have enlisted Melissa's help at Queens, and now I am trying to put it out of my mind.

You know me. I am a person who wants to take care of things immediately. But I can't take care of this immediately, so instead I'm drinking coffee (yeah! coffee will calm me down!) and trying to put my mind in a place where I can critique a manuscript.  Good thing this manuscript isn't set in a hotel.

OK, enough about hotels. Let's get back to Queens.

So. Yesterday, which at this point I can barely remember:

Morning seminar with Suzannah, who was my pod leader last semester. She's a wonderful, vivacious speaker, and yesterday's topic was on writing nonfiction at a shorter length--the length of a novella, something between a long magazine piece and a book. She sees this as a rising trend, with ebooks and websites like The Atavist, and she used Denis Johnson's "Train Dreams" (not nonfiction) as a model. Truth be told, we spent probably half of the time on "Train Dreams," which was actually all right with me.

We had been promised a warmup, but it never got about 40 all day, so everyone was laughing about how the Minnesota girl was freezing in the South. And I was. Today, they say, 55. Ha. I shall wear a parka! (If only I had brought my parka. I could have used it yesterday.)

My second manuscript was critiqued in the afternoon workshop, and it's very confusing to have one person thinking it's just about done and another person swimming through the material, lost. But I think I need to push forward for awhile and stop revising.

Then Rebecca and I had my one-on-one meeting where we discussed the rest of the semester, and my thesis, and ALL SORTS OF THINGS THAT ARE SECRET. Actually, they're not secret; I'm just a little brain-dead and have to stop writing this so I can work on Donna's critique.

Doug texts me pictures of the dogs every day. Here's Rosie a few minutes ago:

Getting attention, which she is not shy about demanding.

And here is Riley last night:

My sweet old  boy!
I will see them on Sunday morning. At last.

Thursday, January 15, 2015

The halfway point

I still love this statue 
Thursday morning, 4 a.m. Can't sleep, might as well write. I've not slept well the whole time here--I think it's the overly-fat pillows in the hotel room, the constant droning air conditioning, the lack of dogs and husband in the bed, the racing mind. I have a 9 a.m. seminar coming up in, yes, five hours. It's going to be a long day.

That said, I just checked my email and I HAVE A THESIS ADVISER! The instructor is not on campus this residency, so I emailed her last night to ask, and she emailed right back and said yes. THIS IS EXCELLENT NEWS.

I'll tell you who she is a little later. I don't want to jinx anything.

Really cold today. Didn't get out of the 30s.
But look how green the grass is.

Yesterday was the last day of my large group. Beginning today, the group shrinks to just four people: Me, two other students, and the instructor. These are the people I will be working with remotely until May, and it's a great little group. This afternoon, they will critique my second manuscript.

But I'm getting ahead of myself. That's all in the future. In the immediate past:

--A seminar with Stitt on people and place. Great texts: John McPhee's Alaska book, and "Mountain City," a memoir by Gregory Martin. The seminar was fairly low-energy, but that's Stitt's style. He still gets stuff done. We talked about how McPhee and Martin (in rather different styles, but not really different ways) described their characters (by placing them in action) and also how they revealed information about themselves through their observations of others.  Does this make sense? It's four a.m. It makes as much sense as it's going to make.

It always helps to have props.
--A craft seminar from a graduating student, this one on the confluence of fact and fiction in memoir. He drew no great conclusions, but got a lively discussion going. If the craft seminar is our introduction to teaching, then I think he did an excellent job. It was not a lecture, but a true discussion. Plus, since his running theme was fishing (he used texts such as Hemingway, Rick Bass, and Norman Maclean), anyone who took part in the discussion was rewarded with a little packet of goldfish crackers.

--Long walk to clear my head. Found my hawk at the last minute in the very top of a tree between Walker Hall and Sykes.

The room in the library where we have been holding our workshops.
--Workshop. A long one; we critiqued two pieces. Rebecca is fascinated by structure, and it was interesting to hear her riff on some of the many ways that each writer could blow up her piece and put it together in a different way. Since they are both graduating in May, neither seemed inclined to do that at this stage of the game. But it's also kind of freeing, I think, to look at a piece and realize that it could come to life--maybe better, more vivid life--in a whole new way.

(Some examples: a mosaic. Straight chronological narrative. Thematic. Two parallel tracks. Three parallel tracks. Two braided tracks. She talked about editing her own work by slicing it apart with scissors and laying all the pieces on the floor in front of her; she said she needs to be able to see everything at once. Scrolling through it on a screen does not have the same effect.)

--The Slam! Oh my gosh I think 24 people read, and the judges were benevolent and let people go over the three-minute mark (though nobody went over by too terribly much). I read, and my two small-group podmates read, and last semester's slam winner read, this time with a serious piece (she won in June with some very funny poems). I wasn't a judge but I guessed correctly who would be the runner up and the winner; though almost all the pieces were good, those two stood out for their liveliness and great humor.

Sheba at the Slam
The Slam was emceed by Sheba, a poet who is graduating this semester and who won the slam last January. She opened the evening by reciting one of her own poems--intense, angry, passionate, breathtaking. Reciting is probably not the right verb here. She lived it. Emoted. Acted. I am not describing this very well; She slammed it.

I have to go to sleep. At this point, I can get in a nap before Suzannah's 9 a.m. seminar. Good night.

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Wednesday morning, and Alpha Krappy Grammar lives!

Bowling ball art, on campus

Cold this morning, with freezing rain overnight, but I think the weather is supposed to turn after today. In the 50s by the time I leave! But then, of course, I leave.

Yesterday on my very chilly noontime walk I finally spotted a hawk, not on campus but in the yard of one of those magnificent mansions in the neighborhood.  I walked right up someone's semi-circular driveway to take a picture, which is such a bad picture all I can find are branches and no hawk, and I'm lucky not to have been arrested.

Hawk? Somewhere.

Tuesday was a good day.

The morning seminar was a fast and useful two hours, the first of four gateway seminars on teaching creative writing. Tuesday's was on the teaching of nonfiction, and the instructor, Rebecca, who will also be my instructor for the semester, was specific and concrete and useful. She is an excellent teacher. Firm and organized. A logical progression through the two hours.

She dedicated the lecture to the writer Judith Kitchen, who had also been her teacher ("A force of nature," Rebecca said.)--unless the lecture went bad. In that case, Rebecca said, it was all hers.

She had seven main points for effective teaching:

1. Identify your goals.
2. Establish the parameters of the genre.
3. Create a common language.
4. Decide how to structure the course.
5. Decide whether to use texts, and, if so, how.
6. Establish class procedures and standards.
7. Find ways to stay alive, both as a teacher and a writer. Don't let the responsibilities of teaching sap you of all your creative energy.

And, of course, each of those seven points had points, and examples, and digressions. She thinks very hard about what she does, and that is why she is so good at it.  I think back to the one and only time I taught a college course--at Ohio State University, where I was the Thurber House writer-in-residence--and I cringe. Did those students learn anything? I was kind of a bumbling mess, and if it hadn't been for a professor friend who I emailed constantly, maybe daily, for reassurance and advice, both of which he gave quite generously, I might not have figured out how to get through that semester.

But Rebecca knows. She is excellent.

From "A Child's Christmas in Wales"

At one point during the discussion she talked about an exercise that was quite similar to the "deep well" exercise we did last residency with Suzannah: Copying out a long, complicated piece of prose and then imitating it, writing in that voice, that exact structure.  And the piece Rebecca chose as an example: The opening of "A Child's Christmas in Wales," by Dylan Thomas. I was so excited to see it on the screen I squirmed in my chair.

I don't have any plans to leave journalism and become an adjunct professor somewhere, but if I ever did decide to teach, I think Rebecca's notes would help me. The other three gateway courses are on teaching poetry, fiction, and writing for stage and screen, but God help any university that asks me to teach poetry.

I could teach one poem: "Bag of Mice," the poem that Cathy Smith-Bowers walked us through last residency. That's it.

After lunch I went to hear Lillie's craft seminar; Lillie was in my very first small group, first semester, and now she is about to graduate. She says the two years went fast, like a snap of the fingers, and I can see that that might be true, but I also see the mounds of work ahead (after the morning session from Fred and Michael on what we need to do to get to graduation) and I get nervous.

Her seminar was lively, on the Lyric Essay, which is certainly a lively topic--and the half hour went fast. She looked happy.

A random fountain in Shuly's sister's neighborhood.
And after workshops, which took up the afternoon, as usual, Shuly and I drove to her sister's house, where Shuly's dog is living for the week, and went for a long fast walk. It's great to have Shuly in this program with me--we are like-minded in many ways, but in addition to that she likes to WALK. FAST. And FAR. Like me.  And so we did.

Tonight, the all-program meal, which I will skip this time (I have gone twice, and maybe that's enough; you know I don't like parties) and then at 8:30 there will, after all, be a slam, decided at the last minute at the bar, apparently, by some of the graduating members of Alpha Krappy Grammar. Since it's in the same hotel where I am staying I have no excuse; I will sneak down there and listen. Maybe I'll read. Maybe the hook will come out and grab long-winded me again.

No entrance fee this time; there will not be a second bench.

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

Tuesday morning and still quite dark

More rain.
The reports from home are of evening owls in the park: hooting in the pines near the birdbath, hooting from the nest in the silver maple. Shortly before I left for Queens, Doug and I walked the dogs just after sunset one night and watched a great horned owl swoop straight toward us, soar right over our heads, and land in a tree. It was like watching an airplane approach; it is such a large bird.

Here, I've seen no big birds. The red-tailed hawk that was my mascot during the first two residencies has not been around, though I did see a very blue bluebird yesterday morning fly right past my face as I was walking near campus. A bluebird in January is a kind of miracle. So are green leaves.

A bluebird on my noontime walk
A group of us went out to dinner on Monday night and we all agreed that the feeling of this residency is different from the first two. We decided that we are missing the lively and gregarious group that graduated in June--they were friendly and funny and welcoming, and they created a mock sorority called Alpha Krappy Grammar, which hosted an event called "the slam," an all-genre program where anyone could read for three minutes (and I read something and it went long and the hook came out...) and there was always a winner, and lots of the poems were hilarious and sometimes raunchy, and the $5 entrance fee went, in the end, to pay for this park bench that is now installed near the firepit on campus:

Here's a close-up of the back of the bench:

So they are gone, moved on, and if there is going to be fun this time around we're going to have to make it ourselves. There is no slam planned for this residency, no evidence of AKG.

The enrollment in nonfiction is down; there are only 11 people in my seminars, and it feels sparse. 

Monday morning's seminar was on the narrative voice in nonfiction, taught by an instructor who knows a lot but is not terribly articulate; you had to listen hard to get her point, but her point was always interesting. This is the class for which I spent my entire autumn vacation reading "The Executioner's Song," the vacation where I had nightmares about Gary Gilmore. The one thing that I really wanted to talk about--why that book is considered fiction and not nonfiction--we glossed over so quickly that I almost missed it. 

I would have liked to talk about that a little more. But that wasn't really the focus of this discussion, which was about narrative voice and approach. We spent the bulk of the time discussing Mikal Gilmore's memoir, "Shot in the Heart," looking at his language and the connections he made between his brother's life and death and the Mormon concept of blood atonement.

And then I had another long break until it was time for my big group to critique my first manuscript. I walked around in the drizzle. I sat in a rocking chair outside the lunch hall until I got cold. I spent a lot of time in the library, working on critiques for later in the week.

The critique was useful. The instructor, Rebecca, opened the hour by reciting William Stafford's poem, "Practice," which is what she did last January, too, and which is a very good thing to do. It reminds us that that is what we are doing here--practicing our craft. It takes away the pressure to be perfect.

A lot of her comments were not necessarily specific to my piece, but she used my piece as a way to get into what she wanted to talk about: the peripheral narrator, and how important it is to show how that narrator is affected by or moved by the action of the piece; how to plant and return to physical description; how not to telegraph the outcome of a scene; how to look at the architecture of a chapter, which is different from the architecture of an essay, especially when it comes to the ending/conclusion (which in a chapter should be more open-ended, leading the reader to the next chapter).

She's very respectful, specific, concrete, useful, and firm, though in a kind way. She makes you want to live up to her.

And now, Tuesday, we start the morning an hour earlier than usual, meeting with Fred to talk about the requirements for graduation. I think after that meeting things will feel more frantic for me; up until now it's been a fairly leisurely pace. Stay tuned.

(She said, in an open-ended way...)

Monday, January 12, 2015

Monday morning in Charlotte in the rain

Queens in the rain on Sunday evening

So I got into Charlotte on Saturday night and since then have had a lot of restful glorious nothing-to-do time, time that I wished at one point I could scoop up and put in my pocket and then release later in the week when I'm overly busy.

This is the beginning of the third semester and second year of my MFA studies, the time when things get serious, not that I haven't been serious already, a year of seriousness, writing reading critiquing writing reading, but now there will be even more of it.

Whoever decorated this hotel had questionable taste. 

Later this week--maybe tomorrow--all of us third-semester students will attend a seminar that goes into the nuts and bolts of the necessary work before graduation. Picking a thesis topic, if we haven't already; choosing a thesis advisor (and hoping they choose you back); choosing a craft topic, and ... oh I will tell you about that after I go to the seminar and know what I'm talking about.  Right now it just all sort of looms as Unfinished Work and here I was yesterday with hours of free time and later I will want that time back.

I guess I could have used yesterday to diligently work on my thesis.

Across from Harris Teeter: tulips!

Instead, I .... did not. I walked to the Harris Teeter grocery store, about a mile away, and bought some provisions to stash in my hotel room for the week. Oatmeal and yogurt, grapefruit and apples, that sort of thing. Because I am no good at spatial understanding, I bought way more than my backpack would hold and had to trudge the mile back to the hotel with a loaded backpack and two plastic sacks.

A tree trunk along my walk.
It was warm, and sunny, and I got hot and had to stop and unwind the scarf from my neck and take off my gloves.  Thirty-six degrees, on its way to who-knows-where!

Back at the hotel I peeled off my sweater, left my hat and gloves behind, and went out for another walk. God it was cold. The sun was gone, the sky looked ready for rain. There was nowhere to walk.

Nice to see bright green in January, even though this plant
looks like it would slice me to pieces.

The hotel is behind the same enormous shopping mall that last year's hotel was in front of; to get to the grocery store I had to walk through the big parking lots, quiet enough on a Sunday morning, but busier later in the day.

So I went the other direction, and found a brand new town-square type shopping area, brick buildings and sidewalk cafes built around a central fountain. Not a soul around.

If I needed therapy, this place was available:

And then back to the hotel. All roads lead to the hotel.

I am reading, for fun, Erik Larson's new book about the sinking of the Lusitania, so I read that for a while instead of boning up on the history of poetry for an upcoming seminar (I haven't quite finished that reading assignment yet) and then finally Shuly showed up and we headed to campus, where she had a meeting to attend, and I, with all this luxurious free time to squander, was able to walk briskly up and down my old favorite Queens West Road, and not get lost.

Ah, Queens West Road. You never disappoint.

I met this guy:

The opening reception had been moved from beautiful old Burwell, with its tiny adjacent rooms and air of history, to the brand-new Levine center, where we were all crammed into one room with a podium and a food table like a bunch of conventioneers. It lacked atmosphere, and enough chairs. But it was great to see everyone from my previous residencies and have a free glass of wine, and take part in the manuscript exchange which, although we do it every residency, always stymies some of the professors.

Not mine. Rebecca handled it logically and with aplomb, figuring out both our small-group assignments and our large-group assignments, and when I left the other two professors who are attached to my large group were still there, one of them actually scratching his head, their students standing around clutching manuscripts, Fred (the program director) trying in his Fred-like way to explain.

Fred addressing the great unwashed.

This morning it has been raining, and I'm leaving in an hour for campus, where I will be all day. At ten a.m., seminar one, "The Author's Sources and the Author's Voice," which should be pretty good. And then a couple of craft seminars by graduating students, and time to take another walk. And then at 4 p.m., the large group will critique my first submission.

So tomorrow I should actually have something to tell you.

Monday, August 4, 2014

The wolverine goes to recall class

"What am I supposed to do with this again?"

My first problem was with MapQuest, which told me to take a right off Robert Street to get to the outdoor dog training site, a one-acre field in West St. Paul.  I MapQuested it two ways--using the street address, and using the intersection. The instructions were the same: turn right off Robert.  So in 90 degree heat, with Rosie strapped in her carrier in the back and with the Jeep AC only marginally working, I turned right off of Robert Street and promptly got lost.

I could go into some detail here--about the gas station I stopped at for directions; the lugubrious gas station attendant who wanted to tell me his entire residential history, none of which involved St. Paul, while I worried that Rosie was baking in the back of the truck; the young matron who gave me incorrect directions (she might work for MapQuest, who knows?);  the gardener I almost ran over later as I screeched to the side of a road and who finally set me straight, telling me i should have turned left off of Robert Street) but that would be boring. Just know that I was hot and frazzled and several minutes late when I pulled into the outdoor dog training area.

Seven other dogs, and their owners, were in a semicircle on a shaded concrete pad, listening to the instructor. Rosie and I dashed from the Jeep (she lives! she lives! she did not die of heatstroke!) and took our place in the semicircle.  It was the first day of class, and Rosie wanted a little context. She tried to meet one of the dogs; its owner jerked the leash and pulled it away. She wanted to sniff the concrete; I made her sit.  She then reverted to her only possible recourse in a frustrating situation like this: She barked.

The instructor looked at us. "I know you," she said. She had been at our house about six weeks before, giving us a one-on-one lesson on How to Stop Rosie from Barking at Milo, the Adorable Four-year-old Next Door.

(The lesson worked, after a fashion.  If I have Rosie on a leash and if I have a pocket full of treats, Rosie no longer barks at Milo or his family. She looks at them, and if she stays quiet, I give her a treat. However, if I am not around or if I do not have treats at the ready, she barks. The training continues; our treat budget expands.)

So now we were here for recall training, hoping to get Rosie to come back reliably when she is off-leash so that we can go Up North in October without worrying that she will run off, get lost, or hold other hikers at bay farther up the trail.

The first thing to do, the instructor said, was play with our dogs for a few minutes. You all brought toys?  Of course I had not. I had been a late registrant and had not gotten all the materials that everyone else had gotten. ("We sent you an email," the instructor said. "I didn't get it," I told her, testily.)

So while the other dog owners were playing tug and cavorting in the hot field with their sweet obedient already-well-trained dogs, Rosie and I were off to the side trying to play with an old saggy tennis ball that we had found, and which Rosie wanted nothing to do with. (It smells like other dogs! It has a hole in it! I want my frisbee!)

Besides, Rosie and I haven't played tug for more than a year, and I took all her puffy toys away from her some time ago because she kept disembowling them. So we kind of failed at the cavorting part of the class.

Over the course of the hour, we practiced the Name Game (the dog must respond immediately when we call its name); Leave It (the dog must abandon whatever interesting thing it is sniffing, peeing on, or rolling on); and then, finally, Come.  To practice Come we were supposed to use a long lead of about 50 feet so that the dog can wander away from us and then return on our command. I, of course, had not brought a long lead because I had missed the email with all the detailed instructions. No toy, no lead, late to class. I was the dunce of the class, and I was frustrated. "We sent you an email," the instructor said. "I know, because I got a copy of it. Maybe it went to your spam."

"I didn't get it," I said.

"I know we sent it," she said again. The thought flashed through my mind: I am the customer who paid $80 for this class. I should not be told that I'm wrong. But that was just the heat and the frazzlement speaking.

So Rosie and I practiced on a regular leash, and she was fine, though she really wanted to get her bearings: sniff the yard, meet the other dogs, understand why she was there. As the sun beat down on the hard yellow grass, I called, Come! and she usually came, but then she also knew she was tethered to me by a six-foot-leather lede.

Finally, dripping sweat, we all reconvened at the shaded concrete pad.  All the dogs sat nicely.  Rosie stood, and barked. She sat quietly when I told her to, and then popped up again and barked. I could tell she was frustrated and confused.

The last game we played was hide-and-seek. One by one, we surrendered our dog to the instructor and then went and hid behind a wooden platform.  The instructor played with the dog, and then we called, "Come!" and our dog was supposed to find us.

One by one the other dogs all played with the instructor and then took off like bullets when their owner called.  I watched, nervously, anxiety rising in me: the instructor had just given Rosie four little salmon treats not five minutes before, and I figured there was no way Rosie was going to abandon her for me--all I had was Charlee Bears, and those are pretty much made out of yellow compressed chicken-flavored dust, as far as I can tell.

Still, when it was our turn, I handed over my dog and disappeared behind the platform. I crouched.

When I got the hand signal, I called: Rosie, come! Come on, girl! And I whistled.

And like a bullet, Rosie raced around the platform and leaped into my lap.

We might have been late and lost, frazzled and hot, we might have been lacking the proper equipment, but when push came to shove, my dog loves me and she found me, hiding and waiting.

I smooched her, squeezed her, gave her a fistful of Charlee Bears.

On the way home, I promised her that next week we will be on time, and we will have the proper equipment.

When I got home, I found that stupid email with all the instructors in my inbox.  It even warned me not to trust MapQuest.

Sunday, August 3, 2014

More training for the scofflaw

"I don't need more training. I need more biscuits."

My first dog, Toby, never had any training. I was such a novice--I'd never had a dog before, never even thought about having a dog before--that it took me eight months to housebreak him. He ate my couch. He ate my boyfriend's baseball cap. His very first day with me he took a tiny, odorless crap in the bedroom closet, which, by the time I noticed it, had adhered to the floor and turned to stone, and when I moved out it was, shamefully, still there. He never went to puppy class, never had Obedience I, but that dog was so devoted to his tennis ball that over time all I had to do was hold up a ball and he would do anything I told him to do: Sit. Stay. Lie down. Shake. Come. And, of course, fly: Fly after that ball, Toby!

Toby, waiting for me to throw the tennis ball.

Boscoe graduated from obedience class with flying colors--he was the star student the instructor liked to demonstrate new skills on for all the Labs in the class--but it took a while to learn transference. Everything he did perfectly in class he did sort of haphazardly outside of class for a while. But he was a Border collie, and brilliant, and devoted to us, and he caught on quickly. His one goal in life was to please us. He never ran off, never defied us. He was so sweet that when he was a puppy he used to wriggle underneath the fence, escape from the back yard, and then trot around to the front steps and sit there waiting for us to find him. He lived to be just a few months shy of 17 years old, and he was never, ever a problem.

Boscoe being perfect.

Riley required a little more effort. He was shy, skittish, wary from living in an unhappy home. He never graduated from Obedience I because of two things: the blizzard that canceled the last two classes, and the Bernease Mountain Dogs that were in the class right after his, and which lumbered around the vestibule of the school, and which terrified him. But as he grew older, he learned. He is now 13, and it is hard to remember when he wouldn't always obey.

Riley, all winsome.

All three of them were great trail dogs, and when we went Up North they were off leash with never a problem. They trotted along the path, checking back, never straying far. Sometimes one of them would dash after a squirrel or a chipmunk, but they'd come right back.

And then there's Rosie.

Oh my god and then there's Rosie.

Willful, strong-minded, defiant. She was great the first four times we took her Up North, staying right with Riley, following him when he ventured off trail, coming right back when called, but last spring she disgraced herself. She has grown comfortable up there, I think, and also, now that she is fully grown at age 2, she has grown protective of us. Three times that week she ran ahead on the trail and barked at other hikers, wouldn't come back when we called, had to be dragged away as we scattered apologies behind us.

At home, she barks at the neighbor boy, who is 4 and adorable (he likes to hang on the fence and call to us: "Hi, Laurie!"), she barks at people passing by the house, she barks at squirrels and rabbits. She is incredibly, amazingly vocal. She has those "danger! alert!" barks, and she also has a whole vocabulary of whines, whimpers, moans, squeaks and chuckles, all of which mean different things. We know what most of them mean: the whimper that means that her ball is out of reach; the chuckle that means she wants a door opened; the whimper-bark that means she is trapped somewhere (she has a habit of accidentally shutting herself in the bathroom).

She is, by far, the most vocal dog we have ever had. She truly can almost talk.

And because of her willfulness, she is also the most-trained dog we have ever had. She has graduated successfully from: puppy kindergarten, Obedience I, leash training, agility training, and stop-barking-at-the-neighbor-boy training.

Rosie blasting through the tunnel at agility class.

On Saturday, she started outdoor recall class. The idea is that in these four classes (and with tons of practice) she will learn to come back when we call her if she is off-leash, despite distractions of squirrels or bears or other hikers.  Like I said, the other dogs in our pack all did this naturally.  Rosie--prey-driven, excitable, strong, filled with energy, believing her No. 1 job is to protect us, believing her No. 2 job is to chase down squirrels and rabbits and chipmunks--does not.

I'll tell you about the class, which was hot and frustrating and began as a fiasco (I got lost, of course, on my way there), later. Right now it's time to put Rosie on the long lead (50 feet), take her across the street to the woods, and practice recall.

This is my life: Training Rosie. Some day, some day, some day it will all sink in. Right? And I'll have a sweet, willful, obedient dog who doesn't bark at every distraction.  Yeah. When pigs fly.

"I'm not bad! I'm just high energy!"

Sunday, July 20, 2014

Why I am not writing while I am writing

I know I'm quiet! I'm sorry! But I'm working on my thesis. My writing energy is going there. Is the writing going well? I don't know. It never seems to come out the way I think it will, and I've been fussing over chapters one and two for several weeks now.

This morning I am going to plunge into (a new version of) chapter three.

I am technically on summer break for the MFA, with everything starting up again on Aug. 15. The timing is a little weird--the June residency marked the beginning of the second semester, but as soon it was over we immediately went on break. Still, I've been using the time pretty well, I think, working away most days on what will become my Aug. 15, Sept. 15, Oct. 15, and Nov. 15 submissions.  I won't have them all in hand before Aug. 15, but I think I will have a good start.

When I was writing "News to Me," I started each writing session by first writing a blog post. There was a reason for that--I wanted the book to have the intimate tone of the blog, and so each morning I did a quick blog post because they were easy and pressure-free, and because it helped me slip into that tone. After the blog post, I turned to the manuscript. It seemed to work.

But this thesis has a different tone than the blog, and so that approach will not work. It's intimate (it's first-person), but it is a little more removed, a little more thoughtful, a little more contemplative. I hope. Maybe not!  I seem to not be an overly-contemplative person.

So few blog posts from me, but just think: In another 1.5 years you can read my thesis. I'm sure that will be worth waiting for.


Monday, June 9, 2014

Home, and odds and ends

Back in my park.
And now it is Monday, and now I am home. Last night I dreamed about my thesis, about writing it, word by word, beginning to end. I can't say that it was brilliant because that was not the lingering impression I had when I awoke, but at least I had made good headway on my dream.

Even though I am just back from the second residency, there is a two-month break before the second semester work begins, the work of the monthly manuscript exchange and critique. I know that I cannot coast through those two months but need to start writing, maybe even as soon as today.

With uncharacteristic forethought, I took today and tomorrow off work, so between laundry and unpacking and grocery shopping and dog-walking and, possibly, a nap, as well as the Elvis Costello concert tonight, maybe I can begin to make some headway.

A few more things to remember about the last day of the residency:

* The last class, reading fiction as a writer, was interesting. We had re-read "The Great Gatsby" and a number of pieces of flash fiction in advance, and the instructor talked quite a bit about Gatsby, not much at all about the flash fiction, but after walking us through various shapes of narrative (the traditional approach, with complication-rising action-climax-resolution, and also a couple of shapes he came up with himself), we took a look at three more flash fiction pieces and took them apart. He had a lot to tell us, and only 90 minutes in which to do so, and questions seemed to derail him a bit but people asked them anyway, and when class was over I felt like he had stuffed all of his doctoral research into our heads. But it was fun, if only to see if I could keep up.

* Despite the hours of seminars and workshops, as well as the extra sessions I attended--readings and seminars by graduating seniors--as well as the hours and hours I put into my critiques (literally, morning noon and night for each one), I still found a little time for socializing (not my strong suit). Other people had more time to be sociable, and I can't imagine how, but they must be faster or more efficient or possibly more insomniac than I. (More than one classmate confessed to getting up at 2 or 3 in the morning to work on critiques when they couldn't sleep.)  Still, I did go out to dinner a couple of times, and take a few chatty walks, and I did eat lunch with people a few times, and I did have one or two days when I got to sit in one of those wonderful lazy white wooden rocking chairs outside the library. And then there was the Friday night bonfire.

The Friday night bonfire is, apparently, a tradition of the summer residency, a last get-together before everyone begins scattering the next day. It started around 9:30 p.m., which is late for me, but there I was, chatting with friends, turning down multiple offers of beer and wine, making a s'more, hobnobbing with instructors, watching the sparks fly up into the night. The conversation was aimless and friendly, the night air was warm and humid, the Hershey bars along the edge of the fire ring had started to melt and pulling them apart was like pulling apart strips of vinyl, and much later, when I went inside, my hair, my clothes, my skin all smelled of wood smoke.

* Graduation was surprisingly moving. I attended just because I was still on campus Saturday night when the ceremony took place--most people had skipped out after their last class, but my flight didn't leave until Sunday morning, so I wandered over there and sat with a couple of my classmates in the back row, and when the recording of "Pomp and Circumstance" started up and the graduates began filing in, I immediately teared up.

Each class votes as to whether or not they wear the caps and gowns or street clothes, and the class on Saturday had opted for street clothes, but as they crossed the stage, one at a time, they each got a diploma and a hood, which one of the program directors slipped over their head and then hugged them tightly.

There was a party after graduation, of course, a reception in the same building where we had had our opening night reception, but I don't like parties and I only knew a couple of the graduates, so I skipped out and instead sat outside by the library fountain, where people passed by on their way to and from the party, and stopped, and chatted, and pretty soon a couple of people produced some wine, and we had our own spontaneous mini-party as the sun went down.

And while I was chatting with another student, she and I both saw a wild fluttering and flapping, and the largest hawk I have ever seen swooped down out of the branches of those 60-foot-high trees and dove right toward a squirrel in the grass. The panicky squirrel dodged and ran, and the hawk swooped back up and disappeared in the branches. A red-tailed hawk, almost certainly, and I swear it was twice as big as the red-tails around here.

I'm sorry it missed its prey, but it didn't grow that big missing very often, and somehow it felt symbolic, all of us writers trying so hard, missing the mark, trying again, sometimes getting it right, maybe more often than not. Or maybe that's just what I think after spending seven sleep-deprived intense days with a bunch of intense and sleep-deprived writers who see symbolism everywhere.  It was great, but I am glad to be home.

Saturday, June 7, 2014


Thursday into Friday is when things start winding down, and it's a little sad, even as we all begin longing to be home and asking each other: Are you leaving Saturday afternoon? Or waiting until Sunday?

Thursday is when we get the first e-mail from Melissa telling us how to check out when we leave and where to leave our key card (and warning us there's a $75 fee if we lose it). Then another e-mail on Friday, with cab-to-the-airport information. The bookstore--where I was going to buy Doug one of those nice aluminum travel mugs, maybe, or one of those plastic water glasses with the rigid plastic straws, and where for sure I was going to buy myself a nice pen, since one of my pens leaked all over my hands one day and two others died, and I am now down to one ballpoint that I stole from the Star Tribune Credit Union--the bookstore is now closed (for the summer? for the weekend?), the library is on reduced hours (and has shut down the AC), the coffee shop isn't open.

Today the library will be open only between noon and two, and I must go in then and print out my boarding pass for tomorrow morning. I still have to order a cab for 8 a.m.

The campus at night.

But even as people begin to scatter, or think of scattering, classes go on. Yesterday morning was our third of four "reading like a writer" classes, this one on stage and screen. We focused on two films--"Lone Star," and "A Few Good Men"--and a lot of what we talked about could translate (not directly, but in concept) to narrative prose. We focused on flashbacks--how does the filmmaker get into one, and then get out again? Our instructor noted that John Sayles does not interrupt a tense, dramatic scene for a quiet flashback, but does the opposite; in "Lone Star" some of the guys are talking in the restaurant, the tension is low, the camera pans to a basket of tortillas on the table, there's an almost imperceptible shift, the basket of tortillas reveals something important (a bribe), we're in the past, and the scene is extremely tense, with Kris Kristofferson strutting and threatening, on the verge, always, of violence. Relief comes when the scene moves back to the quiet present.

Because it was a film writing class, we got to watch snippets of the movies, and at the end of the 90 minutes he let us stay a little late and watch the courtroom scene in "A Few Good Men" where Tom Cruise grills Jack Nicholson on the witness stand. So we sat in rows in the dark, like in a movie theater, 20 or 30 people on a brilliant Friday morning, and as the tension grew and it looked as though Cruise was defeated, and Nicholson rises from the stand to march off, triumphant, I found myself leaning forward in my chair and I looked around me and just about everyone else had leaned forward too.

And then you see the shift, and suddenly Cruise is in control (Cruise control?) and Nicholson snaps and bellows, "You can't handle the truth!" and the instructor paused the movie at that instant and crowed, "There it is!" and yes, there it was, that great moment that we had all been holding our breath for.

In the evening I went out to dinner with two other nonfiction students and three fiction students, and then I rushed to finish my final critique, which will be delivered at 2 p.m. today, and then it was time for the bonfire. The bonfire, another sign that everything is coming to an end.

Today: One more morning walk. One more class: "The Great Gatsby," reading as writer (fiction). One more workshop, one more critique.

It feels like everything is winding down, but in truth everything is gearing up: This residency marks the beginning, not the end, of the second semester.  Soon enough, manuscripts, critiques, regular emails, work work work. But tomorrow: home.